Ryan Center singers display impressive artistry at Grant Park

Thu Aug 16, 2012 at 12:14 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Tracy Cantin, J’nai Bridges and Emily Birsan perform music from Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte” Wednesday at the Pritzker Pavilion. Photo: Norman U. Timonera

The Grant Park Music Festival’s annual collaboration with singers of the Lyric Opera’s Ryan Center has been one of the lakefront series’ most popular box-office draws and so it proved again Wednesday night. An estimated crowd of 11,000 packed Millennium Park to hear these gifted young artists perform excerpts from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte and Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier with Carlos Kalmar and the Grant Park Orchestra.

Wednesday’s program was a departure from the traditional melange of isolated arias from several operas. And while the vocalism of these gifted young singers was largely impressive, there were presentation issues on the evening’s first half.

Mozart’s operas don’t lend themselves very well to this kind of potted treatment, not least the highly conversational Act 1 of Cosi fan tutte with its fast dialogue and complex mate-swapping. Non-aficionados who failed to nab a program with inserted libretto before the quantity ran out, were likely baffled by the abridged, cut-and-paste action and wondering why the men were swooning or why the maid Despina was talking in a comic high voice. The Lyric Opera’s Jack Zimmerman was the uncredited narrator, and while he provided wry and sardonic asides, the tight rehearsal time was apparent in a couple missed cues and early entrances from him.

The current Ryan Center roster is clearly a strong one and vocally there was little to kvetch about. Joseph Lim was especially impressive, the Korean baritone showing a robust and firmly focused voice as Guglielmo. Evan Boyer was equally assured as a darkly authoritative yet flexible Don Alfonso. John Irvin displayed a pleasing tenor though his Un aura amorosa was on the loud side and the singer seemed to lose focus and strength in the upper tessitura.

Of the women, soprano Emily Birsan was the standout as a terrific Despina, characterful, bright toned and genuinely funny as the wily maid. J’nai Bridges was a fine Dorabella, her vital and impassioned Smanie implacabili, a worthy showcase for her dusky mezzo. As Fiordiligi, Tracy Cantin proved more mixed, sounding insecure in the high coloratura and tending to veer off pitch under pressure, as in her rather generalized Come scoglio.

The Canadian soprano was heard to better advantage as the Marschallin in the final scene from Rosenkavalier, her voice suited to the elegant high-born woman who must give up her young lover. The evening was decisively stolen by Kiri Deonarine as Sophie and Cecelia Hall as Octavian, the two women soaring in a radiant rendering of the closing duet.

With a goodly number of Lyric Opera musicians on the Grant Park roster, the ensemble delivered lively and nimble playing in the Mozart under Kalmar’s direction. The conductor was especially inspired in the Strauss scene, his Austrian side apparent in the theatrical panache of the opening waltz and the luminous elegance throughout. It would be an inspired idea if one of Chicago’s opera companies gave Grant Park’s conductor an opportunity to someday lead a staged opera performance.

NOTE: Soprano Aleksandra Kurzak has pulled out of this weekend’s Grant Park performances of Dvorak’s The Spectre’s Bride. The Polish soprano was unable  to travel due to illness, said a festival spokeswoman. Chicago soprano Jonita Lattimore will take her place in Dvorak’s oratorio.

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